Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Thematic Lightbulb

It's sort of odd; as all game designers are want to do for various reasons, the discussions of theme and mechanics always seems to come up. Whether it's a generalized starting point as a discussion ("What do you start with, a theme, or a mechanic?"), or something that sort of gets sideswiped into the design discussion ("We really should do that, because that's what people expect when you are simulating XXX..."). And I've found this to be quite apparent across various game design fields that I've in contact with over the years. Generally, everyone is trying to simulate SOMETHING; even something as simple as Tetris could be described as a sort of gravity simulation. Mostly because, well, people just understand the nature of how strangely oblong blocks stack up, and that packing them one way will result in very different packing position if you pack them differently.

It does seem like board games is a game subgroup that really doesn't mind having an abstract genre (and yes, I know they exist in video games), but even when you get to something that really is completely abstract, such as pinball, the amount of theming within the rules is astounding from a developer standpoint (and as an ex-pinball guy, I know). Really, a pinball machine is just a set of play mechanics that allow the player to score points based on whatever state various shots and targets are in, but every effort is made to somehow theme each of these states and reasons for why "increased scoring potential" may be active. It all made sense to me when I was in the industry: "This game mode represents "Payback Time" from whatever hot movie license the game was based on." But a few months out of the industry, and I was completely lost.


As a case in point, before I was in the industry, I played a pinball machine called "Whirlwind." I enjoyed it a lot. And this was way before the craze of various continual play modes that began in the '90s.

Anyway, as it was frequently done back in those times, various things would advance the scoring of various other things. And in the case of Whirlwind, one of the features was "Jets At Max." First of all, there were no airplanes on the game, and since it was a weather/tornado themed game, I started assuming that Jets meant Jet Streams, and the outer loops had "cloud faces" blowing wind around; that looked like Jet Streams to me! Soooo, I figured, Jets at Max meant that the outer loop shots must be worth big points.

It was only I started working in Williams/Bally did I realize that Jets referred to "Jet Bumpers." In other words,the silly pop bumpers that bounced the balls around were maxed out at big points, not the loop shots.

Alas, what was my point? Maybe it was this: here was a case where the theme, and the search for a logical extension of the theme, caused me to guess completely wrong as to how a scoring mechanic worked.


Anyway, as I said earlier, it's a little odd. There's always talk about themes and mechanics, and especially how Eurogames wind up just having a collection of mechanics with a theme pasted on. I know some people like having a brainburning good time fighting with mechanics and searching for optimal mathematical play, but I find myself leaning further and further toward the Fortress:Ameritrash side of things; I want a logical explanation for why things are happening, not "just because" a rule tells me so.

This came most strongly into my vision while playing a prototype recently. Mechanically, it worked fine; he added a few new features to it that felt better than the last. And while the stated goal of the game was often discussed in terms of mechanics and scoring mechanisms, the entire game devolved into operating things solely for the gain of positive points, or avoidance of negative points. And while he had studied up strongly on his chosen theme of the game, and various detailed historical matters regarding the theme he wished to impart upon it, it was clear that the game was pretty much an abstract; you did not feel like you were doing anything that represented anything close to his theme; all actions were solely manipulating little cubes to best scoring results.

The little theme-ing lightbulb turned on in my head near the end of the evening. Basically, one of the new features he added was the addition of neutral cubes that scored negative points. At this point, I realized that those cubes, based on a the discussion which kept coming back to him describing the games theme (which to any other player, doesn't really exist), could actually perform an action that relates to the theme and represenations that he decribed that affected the game interestingly, as opposed to just a point suck.

Whether or not that something like this gets implemented in his game, I do not know. But it did make something tangible to me that was often talked about in rather mysterious terms: what exactly does theme mean within the context of a game? And the answer was a rule that performs as you'd expect in simulating that particular thematic action.

At least until I change my definitions again.

** I know I'm being a little vague on describing the game above. As it's not my game, I don't feel it's right to talk too much about it's details.

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